CRAIG EDWARD KELSO
Summers are meant for reading a good, solid book. Books are read for a variety of reasons, but maybe you’re looking for something with a little oomph, gravitas.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand is such a book.
Romance. Politics. A cataclysmic battle of ideas. Complexity. Relevant to your life today.
Challenging, it will knock you back a bit on your heels. It’s long enough to fully flesh out the characters, and they each have a role, a part to play. No words or scenes are wasted.
It is a strong, persistent vision.
And you should challenge yourself. You should put your philosophy, such as it exists, to the test. You should find a book worthy of your time and your brain.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll discuss the great novel here in the digital pages of checala.
In this installment, I've included an INTRODUCTION and BACKGROUND and then some commentary on Part I, Chapter 1, The Theme to get you going.
It’s sometimes nice to have another person reading along with us, exploring the topics raised, highlighting ideas we might have missed, placing a novel in its proper context.
I believe the first chapter, The Theme, is super important to understanding the rest of the book, and so I give it some extra emphasis here. It’s easy to gloss over and not catch the subtleties. Once the reader gets the background of Rand’s writing Atlas Shrugged and its main tensions, then the rest of the reading is smoother.
INTRODUCTION and BACKGROUND
At the turn of the last century, Alisa Rosenbaum was thrown into a society bent on upheaval. The year of her birth found the tsarist Russian authorities giving away political power, and Saint Petersburg was on the verge of a cataclysmic revolution, one substantive, immense, apropos of a noun with the cryptic meaning of turning over.
Bolsheviks would sack the great city at Alisa’s beginning intellectual transformation, a time of intense curiosity and thought – she was all of twelve when the world around her was on fire again. Everything was new in the most horrific sense: wars, near famines, shortages forcing a formal abdication, finally ending three centuries of Romanov monarchical rule.
Russia was now Soviet, collectivized. More than a few historians with the advantage of hindsight view the Soviet Union as the worst government ever known to humankind.
Say what one might about Hitlerian Germany, Stalin’s Russia was far worse for everyone – even Jews.
And the one hundred years enveloping Alisa’s life total of seventy seven were saddled with horrific figures, grotesque governments the likes of which the world had never previously known. Hitler. Stalin. Mao. Tito. Mussolini. Ceausescu. Castro. Pol Pot. The names roll off the tongue like the sickest litany of anti-saints. Mass murder on a technological scale not imagined, starvation, prison states, a brutal nihilism, savage nationalism were all part of the backdrop to how people responded to ideas in Alisa’s most formative years and through her death in 1982.
It simply cannot be avoided, this background of the life of the Atlas Shrugged author. And though I feel the novel holds up on its own out of the context I am giving, I have to make the historical case plain enough so the reader understands Atlas Shrugged as an allegory.
It is a stern, evangelical warning. It is a threat. It is not an invitation. The reader won’t be carried into the world created within its pages warmly, no. The reader will be slammed over the head, dragged to a corner, and given an ultimatum.
There isn’t any more time to be patient.
Perhaps it’s a little too glib to discuss the utter saturation of collectivism as existing somewhere around her and not permeating everything about her, from art to literature to politics to economics to love. The people this. The people that. Self-sacrifice. Give your life over for the good of the country, the state, the church, society. Tamp down your own wants and desires. One could hardly tell where the person began and the collective ended, and that was on purpose.
The world at the time of publishing Atlas Shrugged really was divided between those who believed in something like individualism and those who believed in something like socialism, collectivism.
I leave the two terms purposefully vague and undefined, and that’s the tension also of Atlas Shrugged. Many of its characters operate between the two philosophical spheres, and then they don’t. They at some point are made to choose, as we all will have to at some point.
Alisa is granted a quirk of bureaucratic loopholism, allowing her to leave Russia just as the Soviets are gathering real steam. She is young, tenacious, ambitious and full of love for an idealized West. Her orientation to the United States comes through cinema, silent movies. They’re heroic, glamorous, romantic – all the attributes any intelligent girl in her late teens and early twenties cultivates and wants for herself. And Alisa can see the writing on the Soviet walls alright. Had she not gotten out, there is every indication one of the brightest lights of that age would’ve been surely extinguished, and also on purpose.
In the United States on a Visa, she overstays her legal welcome, makes her way to California, and begins the prospect of learning a new language and culture utterly and completely foreign. She accomplishes all this through arguably the greatest of American industries, Hollywood. She meets and marries an American, forging ahead with her literary aspirations by changing her very Jewish-sounding name to the nom de plume for which she would be forever known, Ayn Rand.
It’s pronounced eye-een, like pine or twine, and not Anne like Stan or pan.
Ayn Rand is simultaneously a great woman writer and a wonderful case for the beauty and necessity of immigration. Though she would chafe at the categorizing, and can be seen as much more than a strong female voice in literature – headstrong, confident, self-sufficient – Rand is also that great, wonderful biography of the penniless, stateless person who almost biblically makes her own way in a foreign land.
She writes several plays, has a few published, and sets two smaller novels (by comparison) in the popular imagination to limited success. But they’re enough to get her an audience, and enough for her to push ahead with a most audacious novel on extolling the virtues of self-determination and arch individualism, The Fountainhead. The characters are stark, brooding, waiting to exhale. They search for like-minded souls trapped in seas of mediocrity and sewers of tribal pap. The novel is even later made into a motion picture, furthering Rand’s popular reach.
The Fountainhead is a smashing hit. It sells wildly, pumped by Cold Warriors, businesses people, foundations, and a small but growing number of those also dissatisfied with the state of the world.
Rand then is challenged by several readers to give her protagonists’ philosophy a deeper hearing, as readers want to know how serious she is. Can such a person exist? Was this just literary amusement? Did novels like The Fountainhead mean anything?
Atlas Shrugged was Rand’s answer.
She means it. Man, does she mean it.
Where The Fountainhead leaves open some issues in the way every story must (interestingly, almost everyone who first reads Rand comes away with countless questions and severe cognitive dissonance), Atlas Shrugged appears to close the door on any reader doubt.
It is a swear, a curse against all who would claim anti-morality, nihilism, post-modernism. It is a vow against situational ethics, and it is a profoundly religious tome in the best sense of attempting to reconcile ones actions with ones values. It might be the most challenging work of fiction you’ve ever read.
It’s an important novel on many levels, encompassing philosophy, history, psychology, economics, technology, politics, civics, romance, and innovation.
Atlas Shrugged is divided into three parts: Non-Contradiction, Either-Or, A is A.
Each part has ten chapters.
Each part is a novel in and of itself, and each part is longer than the next.
Let’s crack it open.
Part I, Chapter 1, The Theme
We’re thrown into Atlas Shrugged’s world immediately with the curious epithet, lament, ‘Who is John Galt?’
It’s a world that doesn’t seem to be in any far off future or any distant past.
It is now, or something like now America.
It’s in a slide, a decline.
Society is decaying, giving up. Bums abound. The images are dark, moribund themselves: cracked buildings, failing businesses, a lackluster nonexistence. It appears all is decaying from the inside out, as wonderful things often do in our experience.
We’re seeing the first glimpses of this America through the eyes of Eddie Willers. He’s on his way to meet with his boss, James Taggart, President of the railroad concern, Taggart Transcontinental.
Willers is rational, but doesn’t want to make much more effort than is ultimately required of him. He will be bound by duty. He will ask the right questions up to a point. The Willers character dislikes knowing more than the obvious – anything more, and he begins to get uncomfortable. Rand uses Willers’ reflecting on an oak tree to round out his person: its strength, its near immortality during his youth, ... only to be struck by lightening, exposing its lifeless core ... and Willers' emotional insecurity.
Willers is not a deep thinker, and often wants to just stop thinking when things get too tricky.
Willers loves his work and loves Taggart Transcontinental. Like he once did with the oak tree, Willers believes the company will be around forever.
And it is Eddie Willers who we immediately will identify with. We’re a lot like him. Willers is us.
And it is through Willers we also get to meet a central character, Jim Taggart. Eddie really doesn’t want to have this seemingly regular meeting with Taggart, his boss, but he presses on anyway. This too is a very illustrative trait. Willers continues on despite the nagging concern something isn’t quite right.
Taggart we first encounter in scratchy conversation with Willers, at a time when problems are mounting for Taggart’s company. Right away we learn Taggart wants to avoid reality. Interestingly, it is Taggart’s direct underling, Eddie Willers, who is the rational problem solver. The President of the company doesn’t want to be bothered with realism. He even accuses Willers as lacking a kind of faith.
The remedy is available.
Taggart needs to let a failing aspect of the company go so as not to take the rest of Taggart Transcontinental into ruin. A railroad, a shipper basically, is strong so long as it can get the goods to the buyer safely and on time. Taggart Transcontinental isn’t doing that, and the businesses who rely on the company are starting to wonder at whether they’re going to get supplies. Each company depends on the other. And Taggart Transcontinental is itself dependent on its suppliers, suppliers who’re not living up to the challenges of supplying the railroad with track, steel. Lines are crumbling.
And all Taggart can do is dither.
Taggart reveals himself as petty and jealous of the men who can get things done like Hank Rearden. Rearden can supply the steel Taggart needs but Taggart refuses to deal with Rearden, keeping himself barely afloat without having to change. He resents heavily effort of almost any kind. Ellis Wyatt, another industrialist alluded to in passing during the conversation, has evidently created a booming market in an area of the country dolts like Taggart didn’t expect. Rather than serve that new market, Taggart damns it, and in doing so he really is damning the lifeblood of civilization, entrepreneurialism.
The company is being crippled by Taggart’s reliance on cushy friendships and alliances. There is a solution to issues plaguing Taggart Transcontinental, but Taggart wants to avoid blame – he lacks ultimate focus. Taggart hates change, and that much is clear.
Everything is out of Taggart’s control, according to Taggart. Taggart wants everyone to know he cannot be held responsible. He doesn’t want to be judged. He doesn’t want responsibility.
In the end, Taggart dismisses Willers away, who is thoroughly confused as to why Taggart won’t solve the problem.
Taggart is all about avoidance: the problem, the solution, and a trusted advisor.
Returning from investigating Taggart Transcontinental’s main problem, the poor functioning line at the core of Willers’ and Taggart’s conversation, we meet the real heart and soul of the company, James Taggart’s little sister, Dagny Taggart.
She’s thrust into smaller confrontations even on a mild trip home. It appears no one can get much done, as the problems of ability have impacted all levels of the country, and she steps up and provides solutions to the issues in front of her. She doesn’t care about blame and judgment. She wants to act.
Dagny is Taggart Transcontinental's Vice President of Operations.
She is a person of evangelical love for her family’s company. She can get her hands dirty. She runs the company without an official title. Even the workers know the truth of Taggart’s incompetence and Dagny’s can-do-it ness.
Dagny isn’t conventional in any sense. She isn’t beautiful in the typical manner. She is gaunt and severe. She doesn’t sit around and wait for a man to fulfill her as many of the women of her time did. She is fulfillment in and of herself. She is a sensualist, loving the sounds and motion and smells and indulgence of life. Her life is grueling, and it is because there are so few people with whom she can share her sense of life.
She is similar to Eddie Willers in the sense that she’s focused on the problem and not the surrounding, ancillary events. But she’s also different from Willers in that she won’t allow someone to roll over her, to overpower her in what she knows is right.
When the train she’s happening to travel on comes to a stop, she leaps at the chance to make things better. As a matter of course, the crew is sullen and operating as they’ve become accustomed under Taggart. They’re used to passing blame, and they’re used to avoidance.
They’re waiting for orders.
Dagny assumes the position of a problem solver, naturally imparting instructions and rational responses to the situation in front of her. It’s qualitatively different way of interacting with people. Taggart only wants to exert power, being a big shot. He loves the trappings of importance without the doing. Dagny is not an authoritarian, but she’s also not a wallflower. She knows. She acts.
Dagny doesn’t lord over the company’s workers. She takes a coach car, rather than first class, riding anonymously. It is not until the crew finally asks that Dagny announces who she is. The crew perks up to her manner, to her suggestions, to her orders. They instinctively understand brilliance, and they respond to it. She doesn’t deflate those working for her. She inspires them.
Dagny returns to Taggart Transcontinental.
What’s clear about Dagny is how spiritually important a person’s work is to their life. It’s a different way to look at the world. We’re often peppered with spiritual work as attending to the poor, as selflessly worshiping a deity and so forth. On purpose, Rand’s heroine is guided by seemingly deeper spiritual ideas which at first appear quite profane. This is jarring for the reader. What? A dirty railroad, noisy and greasy? A corporate executive as a grand vocation? Shouldn’t Dagny be washing the feet of the poor or tending to a brood of children? How can she care so much?
Passion is what drives Dagny. And Rand wants us to think about work in a radically new way. Reason and emotion gives us life when applied to our work. To Dagny it’s more than just a job.
When Dagny and Taggart meet, much of the book is revealed. It’s an enormous contrast.
Dagny investigates, judges, acts. Taggart waffles, kvetches, threatens, obstructs. It’s clear also Dagny doesn’t understand Taggart much in the way Willers is confused.
She knows he won’t read the report she’s going to draw up. She knows what it is he’s not going to do or do. She cannot put together why it is her brother acts in such a manner. She doesn’t believe he’s a jealous, emotional backstabber who will take the entire company down in order to avoid blame. She is frankly baffled by why he responds so oddly to her suggestions.
This is an obvious mistake on Dagny’s part, a bit of foreshadowing.
Dagny knows what to do. She will order steel from Rearden, solving the immediate problem. Taggart fears a monopoly. Taggart wants to wait for his friend to come through. Dagny knows there is no more time. She must act.
Taggart is filled with emotions.
He wants power over others by using emotional arguments. He couches his arguments in the emotional language of doing right by the public good, helping others, etc. It’s such a litany we’re all used to, a parade of humanitarianism we all grow up with, that it’s difficult to see its perniciousness, its awfulness.
Facts are unimportant to Taggart. He leans on the opinions of others, constantly. He cannot make an independent decision. He cannot search through a problem himself, anticipate an answer, and take action. Taggart tries to find every excuse imaginable not to buy from Rearden, to hold onto failing business arrangements.
Dagny has seen the reports. She is willing and able to exercise her own independent judgment.
While Taggart is terrified of competition when he learns of another railroad service, Dagny welcomes the competition. She understands what is at stake. She knows as a good capitalist that markets are grown through providing service, and rather than stepping on her competition, she would rather have a fair fight. She wants a challenge. And she has the adult view of a market. It’s not a fixed pie, where once a slice is eaten it leaves less for the rest. No. Dagny understands how markets often have room to grow under the umbrella of service, of competition.
Taggart wants companies to just be satisfied with what Taggart Transcontinental can offer. He doesn’t want to compete. He would rather be in a position to give out a kind of business charity. He wants companies and people dependent on him. This way, he can always been viewed as a benevolent actor.
It’s, again, a huge contrast in personality. We know a lot of Taggarts. We know very few Dagnys.
Dagny gives to every person their inherent dignity, goodness, and competence. Taggart sees people as pawns, means to his ends. Dagny, however, doesn’t use the language of victimology, of emotionalism. Taggart is constantly employing righteousness to buttress his points.
The chapter’s most instructive exchange happens when Taggart accuses Dagny of not feeling real emotions like regular people. This really is telling. Paradoxically, it is Taggart who is passionless, led around by his emotions, a blob of inaction. Dagny is the epitome of passion. She bounces to her work, she loves achieving and accomplishment.
What happens when such different worldviews meet, and when Dagnys are confronted by Taggarts? Dangys recoil to action and sarcasm. Dagny just concedes Taggart’s point, finding the entire conversation futile and demeaning. There’s a little bit of Eddie Willers’ frustration and giving up in Dagny here, but only in a small way.
Eddie Willers remains in the background. He is not a self-starter by any stretch. He can be worn down by Taggart’s hand-wringing and indecisiveness. Dangy provides the sanction Eddie needs to act. She is his motor. She is his fuel.
The final aspect of the chapter has a favored employee quitting, and quitting in a rather dramatic and mysterious fashion. Dagny offers him whatever he’d want to stay. But the employee, Owen Kellogg, no longer wants to work for Taggart Transcontinental, refusing the offer of a lifetime.
To recap Chapter 1, the world is falling apart around them, but these early characters still have to navigate that world. A microcosm of what’s going on is happening within Taggart Transcontinental. Two vastly opposing ways of living are exhibited in Taggart and Dagny. One is consumed with what others think, always considering the popular conception of reality. The other is an independent actor, a problem solver. And then there is us, embodied in the person of Eddie Willers, the person who wants to do what is right but is sometimes psychologically beaten into a kind of everyday submission.
That’s a good enough start to get you reading and understanding the basic set up.
Check back next Saturday as we plow deeper into this great novel.
Craig Edward Kelso is the author of Anarcho-Capitalism (2014), a primer on the philosophy of peaceful, stateless cooperation. His curriculum vitae include a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from San Diego State University, and a Post-Baccalaureate secondary education credential in both Social Science and English Language Arts. Kelso taught for nearly a decade in the American public school system, and was voted by colleagues Teacher of the Year, twice in his short tenure, earning numerous accolades from chambers of commerce, mayors, state assembly persons, governors, congresspersons, senators, and even Wal-Mart. Currently he struggles to earn an opportunity to be employed, working as a laborer, dishwasher. He is deliriously and happily married to Myra Kelso, living in Southern California with their adorable children.